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'Power was in the vote': Why it still matters today

OPINIONThis piece expresses the views of its author(s), separate from those of this publication.
Story and art by Mike Thompson, USA TODAY

VETERAN ACTIVIST HEZEKIAH WATKINS SAYS THE CURRENT ASSAULT ON VOTING RIGHTS MAKES HIM FEEL LIKE “GARBAGE.”
“NOT SO MUCH FOR ME, BUT I LOOK AT THE ONES WHO PAID THE ULTIMATE PRICE … PEOPLE WAS MURDERED SO WE COULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO BECOME REGISTERED VOTERS.”
AND THE 1960S CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER WONDERS: WHERE ARE THE LEADERS TODAY?
BY HIS OWN COUNT, WATKINS' ACTIVISM LED TO HIM BEING ARRESTED MORE THAN 100 TIMES. today, HE WORKS AS A GUIDE AT THE MISSISSIPPI CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM. 
“WHEN GEORGE FLOYD WAS MURDERED…YOU HAD ALL KINDS OF INDIVIDUALS, ALL KINDS OF PEOPLE PARTICIPATING IN THESE MARCHES. BUT WHAT HAPPENED? THE LEADERS JUST WASN’T THERE. THE VISION WAS NOT THERE, AND THAT WAS THE PROBLEM.”
where he tells visitors HOW HIS INVOLVEMENT IN THE MOVEMENT BEGAN WITH BEING A “NOSY” 13-YEAR-OLD.  
JULY 7, 1961, JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI:
“MY FRIEND AND I HEARD ABOUT THE FREEDOM RIDERS THAT WAS GOING TO BE COMING INTO THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI … SO WE DECIDED TO JUST GO TO THE BUS STATION TO SEE THE FREEDOM RIDERS, NOT TO BE ONE.”
“I JUST WANTED TO SEE WHAT TYPE OF PERSON KEPT PUTTING THEIR LIFE ON THE LINE.”
THEN the FRIEND JOKINGLY PUSHED watkins THROUGH THE DOOR and INTO THE GREYHOUND BUS STATION.
A POLICE OFFICER PUT HIS HAND ON Watkins' SHOULDER AND BEGAN QUESTIONING HIM. WATKINS HAD BEEN BORN IN MILWAUKEE, SO THE officer MISTAKENLY ASSUMED watkins WAS ONE OF THE FREEDOM RIDERS.
HE WAS ARRESTED, TAKEN TO PARCHMAN PRISON AND PUT ON DEATH ROW, IN A CELL WITH TWO CONDEMNED CRIMINALS, FOR FIVE DAYS, DAYS THAT WAtKINS CALLS “THE WORST DAYS OF MY LIFE.”
HE WAS LATER TOLD THAT PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY CALLED TO INTERVENE ON BEHALF OF HIM AND THE FReEDOM RIDERS WHO were all being  HELD ON DEATH ROW. 
WATKINS AND THE FREEDOM RIDERS WERE EVENTUALLY RELEASED. HIS MOTHER WAS OVERJOYED TO SEE HIM.
HE WAS NOT CHARGED, HE HAD NO TRIAL, AND HE never WENT BEFORE a JUDGE. HIS FAMILY HAD NO IDEA WHERE HE WAS.
“WE FELL TO THE FLOOR AND WE BOTH WAS CRYING REAL TEARS OF JOY.”
AFTER HIS RELEASE HE WAS BEFRIENDED BY CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST JAMES BEVEL, WHO WANTED WATKINS TO RECRUIT FOR THE MOVEMENT AND TO BECOME A YOUNG SPOKESMAN.
WATKINS JOINED THE CONGRESS OF RACIAL EQUALITY and PARTICIPATED IN A SUCCESSFUL BOYCOTT OF A LOCAL A&P STORE THAT HAD NO BLACK EMPLOYEES. 
“I REALLY SAW THE POWER THAT WE HAD AND WHAT WE COULD DO IF WE STUCK TOGETHER. AND FROM THAT DAY ON, I WAS HOOKED.”
WATKINS THEN MOVED TO THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA AND BEGAN REGISTERING BLACK VOTERS. ON ONE OCCASION, HE WAS BEATEN UNCONSCIOUS BY THE POLICE AND DUMPED ON A SIDEWALK.
“EVERYBODY KNEW THE POWER WAS IN THE VOTE. AND THEY DID NOT WANT BLACKS, NOR SOME WHITES, TO BE REGISTERED.”
AFTER BEING DRAFTED and serving just over two years in THE ARMY, HE RETURNED TO JACKSON AND OPERATED A CONVENIENCE STORE FOR 31 YEARS. He also REMAINED A LEADER IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, CONTINUING TO REGISTER VOTERS.
AFTER A LIFETIME OF LEADERSHIP IN THE MOVEMENT, WATKINS' HOPE IS THAT OTHERS WILL FOLLOW IN HIS FOOTSTEPS.
“EVERYBODY GOT TO BE ON THE SAME PAGE, JUST LIKE IT WAS BACK IN THE '60s.

... WE HAD LEADERSHIP … AND THOSE LEADERS TOOK US TO ANOTHER LEVEL.”